The Death Of Tyre Nichols Is Looming Over Memphis' Mayoral Election

A crowded field of candidates in this October’s election seems to agree on one thing: The Memphis police department needs a change.
Memphis Police Director Cerelyn Davis has become a key issue in the city's upcoming mayoral election.
Memphis Police Director Cerelyn Davis has become a key issue in the city's upcoming mayoral election.
Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

The police killing of Tyre Nichols rocked Memphis, Tennessee, earlier this year. Nichols died three days after he was arrested by police, and video footage showed a group of officers beating the unarmed man in the street. They did not appear to render immediate medical care.

Five officers who allegedly participated in the beating now face second-degree murder charges. But another reckoning will come in October, when the city elects a new mayor who will have to rebuild a police department that is under federal investigation and has lost the trust of many residents.

The first thing the new mayor will have to deal with is Cerelyn Davis, the city’s police commissioner. She not only oversaw the department that killed Nichols, but she created the now-disbanded SCORPION tactical unit; all five officers charged in Nichols’ death were members. And the question of whether Davis should stay or go is becoming an important issue in the upcoming election.

The mayoral race is a nonpartisan general election, with no candidate listing party affiliation on their petition.

The field is crowded with 14 candidates ― some of whom have national profiles. Television celebrity Judge Joe Brown is a candidate. (He previously ran for Shelby County District Attorney in 2014, but lost.)

Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner also entered the race. After Nichols’ death, Bonner suspended two Shelby County deputies without pay for department violations. Both deputies failed to keep their body-worn cameras operating during the incident. They were not criminally charged.

Other mayoral candidates include current Tennessee state Rep. Karen Camper; Michelle McKissack, a former journalist and Shelby County Board of Education member; businessman J.W. Gibson; former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton; and Van Turner, the president of the Memphis NAACP; and Memphis City Council member Frank Colvett.

In recent town hall discussions, two candidates, Colvett and Brown, said they would remove Davis from her post. The rest expressed serious questions about her leadership.

“What I have seen over the last several months with just the lack of accountability, the lack of leadership [with] the lower ranks below her ― right now the answer looks like no,” McKissack said of retaining Davis, according to local Memphis station ABC-24.

Memphis Police did not respond to requests for comment about the chief’s job or the race.

As the local NAACP president, Turner worked closely with Nichols’ family after the 29-year-old’s death. He told HuffPost he acknowledges Davis was quick to disseminate information to the public about Nichols’ death, but he still has questions.

“She did some good things. She was very transparent at a critical time. But on the backend we got a rogue SCORPION unit that pulled a man over and beat him to death,” Turner told HuffPost.

Turner said he would call for the resignation of all appointed officers and individuals ― which would include Davis ― and have them reapply for their jobs.

“She can’t just bounce from city to city and cause the same type of emotion. I think she is just causing a ruckus everywhere she goes.”

- Ashley Mckenzie-Smith

In the weeks that followed Nichols’ death, residents began to speak out about times they were stopped, harassed and arrested by officers in the SCORPION unit, which stood for “Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods.” The unit launched in 2021 with the stated purpose of stopping violent crime in Memphis, as the crime rate in the city spiked during the pandemic.

Residents described the street tactical unit as intimidating and often preying on Black people. Some told local media stations that members of the SCORPION unit beat them days before Nichols’ death.

Four of the five officers arrested in Nichols’ killing were previously suspended for failing to report when they used physical force, damages to squad cars, and failure to report a domestic dispute.

Davis disbanded the SCORPION unit after widespread scrutiny of its tactics. But the unit was not her first experiment with that type of task force. She also oversaw the controversial REDDOG Crime unit in Atlanta in 2006 and 2007. In 2006, during Davis’ time as unit supervisor, a 92-year-old Black woman named Katherine Johnston was killed during a botched no-knock warrant drug raid.

Davis was later fired from the department after she allegedly told detectives not to investigate a fellow Atlanta police sergeant’s husband after images of him with underage girls surfaced.

Atlanta resident Ashley Mckenzie-Smith likened Davis’ time there to what’s happening under the commissioner in Memphis now.

In December, Memphis police shot and killed Mckenzie-Smith’s 20-year-old son, Jaylin Mckenzie, who was in Memphis visiting his father. His killing was one of five police shootings in Memphis during the last weeks of the year; Nichols was beaten in custody in early January.

Mckenzie was in a car with friends at the time of the shooting. An initial police report said officers responded to a “suspicious vehicle” in a parking lot but never indicated the reason for the stop. The car allegedly attempted to flee, and police accused Mckenzie of firing a shot. However, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations, which is probing the shooting, has not asserted the 20-year-old fired at officers that night.

Mckenzie-Smith led a protest in Memphis earlier this month calling for justice. To her, the SCORPION unit that operated under Davis was “pretty much” the same as the REDDOG unit she also lived through.

“I just know that when she ran the REDDOG in Atlanta, people literally did not want to go outside. They were busting in doors, charging people with false charges. Their whole motive was to stop drug trafficking in Atlanta. But it affected a lot of innocent people,” said Mckenzie-Smith. “She can’t just bounce from city to city and cause the same type of emotion. I think she is just causing a ruckus everywhere she goes.”

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